Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. intelligence

U.S. Still Flying Blind on Iran Nukes

On a day when we learned, via quotes from anonymous American officials, that Iran is up to its neck in the fighting in Iraq, confidence in Washington’s ability to stay in command of events in the Middle East is dropping rapidly. But the same administration that has dozed as America’s hard-won achievements in Iraq have evaporated is also hoping that its ignorance about what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t hinder efforts to broker a deal with Tehran.

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On a day when we learned, via quotes from anonymous American officials, that Iran is up to its neck in the fighting in Iraq, confidence in Washington’s ability to stay in command of events in the Middle East is dropping rapidly. But the same administration that has dozed as America’s hard-won achievements in Iraq have evaporated is also hoping that its ignorance about what’s happening inside Iran’s nuclear facilities won’t hinder efforts to broker a deal with Tehran.

The Obama administration’s slender grasp of the facts about Iran’s extensive network of nuclear facilities is the most important point to be gleaned from a New York Times feature that centers on the largely unspecified role that scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh plays in his country’s effort to build a bomb. Fakhrizadeh is, according to the Times, Iran’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the Manhattan Project to nuclear success during World War Two. His absence from the negotiations being conducted with the West is much remarked upon because he, rather than some of the Islamist regime’s representatives who are taking part, is the key to Iran’s nuclear program. While that absence is motivated largely by a prudent desire to avoid Israelis who rightly think scientists trying to create genocidal weapons are good candidates for elimination, the speculation about the gap between what the West knows about Iran’s program and what Fakhrizadeh could tell us is the focus of the Times piece.

But the point of the questions that abound about Iran’s mysterious nuclear expert ought to alarm those who believe the United States knows what it’s doing in the Iran talks. The U.S. has a poor track record when it comes to monitoring Tehran’s actions outside its borders, such as international terrorism and its military intervention in Syria and now Iraq. But President Obama is betting what’s left of his reputation on the world stage and the security of America’s allies in the region on the strength of a number of assumptions about what Fakhrizadeh and his associates have achieved that are difficult to back up.

As the Times reports, the interesting point about Fakhrizadeh is that the timeline of what Iran has already created is extremely fuzzy. There is widespread confusion about whether the claim that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003 is accurate, especially since no one in Washington or anywhere else outside of Iran seems to be sure about when those activities were resumed under different organizations. Yet the administration seems to be assuming that understanding what Iran’s program achieved in the past is irrelevant since they think that they can trust the regime’s promises going forward and believe U.S. intelligence is capable of keeping track of current work.

But the Times lets slip an ominous truth buried deep in the article:

Obama administration officials say they have no illusions that they will get visibility into many of Iran’s most heavily protected sites, even if a deal is reached in the next month. That will leave verification of the accord reliant on the American intelligence community’s ability to track covert nuclear activity, a record that is littered with failures.

In other words, even after the next nuclear deal with Iran is reached, the administration is assuming they still won’t have access to all of Iran’s most critical nuclear sites. Underlying that assumption is a belief that the deal will not require Iran to open up its facilities devoted to military research or its ballistic missile program.

This next deal will leave, as did the interim agreement signed last fall, Iran’s uranium enrichment program in place and allow it to keep a stockpile of nuclear material that could be upgraded to weapons-grade levels. That means any hope of preventing the Iranians from “breaking out” and using the nuclear program left in place by the deal to produce a weapon–regardless of its promises–hinges on the U.S. knowing almost immediately if Tehran breaks its word. But given the American ignorance about what Iran has already done and sketchy intelligence and lack of access for inspections about its current activity, how can the president or anyone else say with any assurance that this next agreement will be worth the paper it is printed on?

Even with full access and inspections of the nuclear sites we know about—as opposed to those that Washington isn’t aware of that most intelligence experts assume exist—the chances of stopping Iran are slim. But to knowingly sign such an agreement with such poor information is a virtual guarantee of failure.

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Snowden, Spying, and Pollard

The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

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The outrage in Europe about the revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. spying on allies embarrassed the Obama administration and caused the president to speak of trying to impose new guidelines on the National Security Agency and to try and distance himself from the affair. As Max Boot wrote here in October, the White House’s decision to throw the intelligence community under the bus was disgraceful. But the hypocrisy of America’s critics on this point was no less absurd. No one should doubt that the U.S. spies on its friends and that, in turn, its allies spy on America. Thus, the latest round of Snowden leaks published in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and the New York Times on Friday giving further details about such spying should surprise and outrage no one. But there is one aspect of the topic that is understandably causing something of a ruckus: U.S. efforts to keep tabs on Israeli leaders. According to the Snowden leaks, the United States worked with British intelligence to intercept the emails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as other Israeli targets. The reports also state that Barak’s home was under surveillance by the Americans.

For those inclined to outrage about friends spying on friends, this is no more nor less infuriating than the stories about other such incidents, such as the U.S. efforts to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But there is one difference between the incidents involving other allies and what happened to Israel. The U.S. is not holding a German or French spy in prison for more than 28 years for doing what America did to them.

By that I refer to Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who betrayed his oath and spied on his country at the behest of Israeli handlers. Jailed in 1985, Pollard is still serving a draconian life sentence for espionage. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wisely not seeking to exacerbate the already tense relations between his government and the United States over the Snowden leaks, some in his Cabinet as well as other Israelis are saying the stories about U.S. spying should cause the Obama administration to rethink its determination (shared by all of its predecessors) to let Pollard rot in jail. Though I deprecate the attempt by some in Israel and elsewhere to depict Pollard as a hero or to minimize the severity of his crimes, they happen to be right.

As I wrote in an analysis of the Pollard case in the March 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, both the spy’s defenders and his worst critics tend to exaggerate his importance. But there should be no doubt that what he did was wrong and badly hurt Israel as well as the United States:

There is no underestimating the damage that Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to American Jewry. The decision on the part of a few operatives and their political masters to exploit what may well have been the romantic delusions of a man of questionable judgment and character did far more injury to the countless loyal Jews who have served the United States so well for generations than anything else. It is not inappropriate that Israel’s government would seek the freedom of a man who, however misguided and harmful his mission, served that nation. But whether or not Obama or a future president ever accedes to Israel’s request for Pollard’s release, his unfortunate example will always be exploited as a pretext to justify those enemies of Israel and other anti-Semites who wish to wrongly impugn the loyalty of American Jews.

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

But once we concede that point, it is difficult to view his continued incarceration as justified. While the United States, like any other country, has every right to capture and prosecute spies, Pollard’s sentence was disproportionate. No one who has ever spied for a U.S. ally has ever received a sentence of this kind. Indeed, such spies are usually quickly ushered out of the country rather than prosecuted in order to avoid unpleasantness. As a U.S. citizen, Pollard had to be punished, but the determination of the U.S. intelligence establishment to see that he dies in jail seems to be based more in a desire to let him serve as a warning to Israel than anything else.

Just as Pollard’s spying is not justified by America’s efforts to do the same to Israel, his lawbreaking can’t be rationalized by U.S. activities. Serious people understand that this is what nation states do. Some of the spying is more outrageous than others (certainly the decision of Israelis to use an American Jew and to loot the Navy’s intelligence falls into that category). But the Snowden leaks make it clear that the self-righteous attitude of U.S. intelligence about Pollard is, at best, hypocritical.

Washington’s attitude on this point may be that small allies that are dependent on big ones for help, such as Israel, can’t expect to be treated fairly or to be granted the same leeway on such matters. That may well be so. But the Snowden leaks erase any doubt that such a position can be justified. Though it’s doubtful that President Obama will make it up to Israel by granting Pollard clemency, there is no reason based in justice or morality for him not to do so. Whatever else Snowden (who deserves punishment no less than Pollard did) has accomplished, he has made it clear that it is long past time for the U.S. to end the Pollard affair by setting him free.

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Expansive Intelligence Is Not Enough

Edward Snowden’s leaks continue to dribble out, keeping the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor in the news. First, China feigned surprise at U.S. espionage even though their cyber-espionage and hacking knows no parallel, and then European leaders huffed indignant, even though their own intelligence services do much the same thing. Most recently, Latin American leaders are outraged at revelations that the United States sought to intercept their communications.

For Americans, the scandal should not be how expansive NSA surveillance is overseas (warrantless surveillance on Americans is another issue), but rather why—if the NSA is as good as the hyped leaks suggest it is—U.S. intelligence has been so bad. Snowden’s leaks suggest that the NSA has penetrated communications so deeply as to be almost omniscient. While that conclusion is likely exaggerated, the degree of American foreknowledge of both allies’ and adversaries’ communications raise questions about why U.S. policymakers haven’t been able to capitalize on that information.

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Edward Snowden’s leaks continue to dribble out, keeping the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor in the news. First, China feigned surprise at U.S. espionage even though their cyber-espionage and hacking knows no parallel, and then European leaders huffed indignant, even though their own intelligence services do much the same thing. Most recently, Latin American leaders are outraged at revelations that the United States sought to intercept their communications.

For Americans, the scandal should not be how expansive NSA surveillance is overseas (warrantless surveillance on Americans is another issue), but rather why—if the NSA is as good as the hyped leaks suggest it is—U.S. intelligence has been so bad. Snowden’s leaks suggest that the NSA has penetrated communications so deeply as to be almost omniscient. While that conclusion is likely exaggerated, the degree of American foreknowledge of both allies’ and adversaries’ communications raise questions about why U.S. policymakers haven’t been able to capitalize on that information.

Alas, having an overwhelming information advantage does not translate into quality intelligence. Take the FBI: Years after 9/11, it still took weeks to translate intercepts from critical languages. Between 2006 and 2008, the FBI failed to review 31 percent of the electronic files it collected, nor did it review 25 percent—representing 1.2 million hours—of audio intercepts.

Intercepts can help those seeking to hunt, capture, or kill an individual target, but they seldom are more valuable than newspapers or public statements when it comes to an adversary’s policy. Nor does signals intelligence and other intercepts substitute completely for human intelligence, a capability which the United States seems to have let slide over the decades. Regardless, no amount of signals intelligence enabled the U.S. government to predict the Arab Spring, nor the Egyptian Army’s countercoup. The best intelligence analysts are often those who read the open-source press rather than those who are attracted to the top-level intelligence likes moths to a flame. Context matters. Newspapers and traditional political reporting often give more insight than those reading transcripts of phone calls or a subject’s emails.

Compartmentalization also matters. Despite the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, federal agencies are still just as bad as they were before about sharing information that could help avert tragedies or advance American interests. National security advisors today are more trusted political sounding boards than bureaucrats capable of coordinating the U.S. national-security apparatus.

Nor is flawless intelligence enough to advance U.S. interests absent a coherent U.S. grand strategy. For a generation, if not more, the United States has been reacting to events rather than trying to determine them. Managing diplomatic relations is like cycling in place; it does not advance U.S. interests.

Damage control from Snowden’s leaks will consume years, if not decades, but it is also long past time for U.S. officials to consider why, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been so unsuccessful in both defining and fulfilling its goals.

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White House Keeps Muddying Benghazi

According to the latest White House-advancing spin, the CIA thought there was a protest outside the Benghazi consulate for 11 entire days after the attack. This is amazing. Apparently the media has access to better intelligence than the CIA, since the general public found out the protest didn’t exist just two days after the attack, via McClatchy.

Sources tell the Wall Street Journal that our intelligence officials are so clueless that they clung to the idea that there were protests outside the consulate, even after savvier Obama advisors became skeptical and started raising questions:

President Barack Obama was told in his daily intelligence briefing for more than a week after the consulate siege in Benghazi that the assault grew out of a spontaneous protest, despite conflicting reports from witnesses and other sources that began to cast doubt on the accuracy of that assessment almost from the start.

New details about the contents of the President’s Daily Brief, which haven’t been reported previously, show that the Central Intelligence Agency didn’t adjust the classified assessment until Sept. 22, fueling tensions between the administration and the agency. …

That weekend, officials at the office of the Director of National Intelligence began to seriously question the accuracy of the assessment after receiving new information Sept. 15 and Sept. 16 from sources that suggested the consulate attack wasn’t preceded by a protest.

Despite the building doubts at the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA stuck by its assessment during a deputies-level meeting at the White House on Sept. 17.

Even after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reportedly began to question the CIA’s account on September 15, the CIA allegedly refused to back down on the “spontaneous protest” claim until September 22. Question: The DNI compiles the presidential daily briefings from CIA intel, so how could it conclude the “spontaneous protest” line was wrong before the CIA did? And why would the CIA cling to a narrative if it had a preponderance of evidence contradicting it?

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According to the latest White House-advancing spin, the CIA thought there was a protest outside the Benghazi consulate for 11 entire days after the attack. This is amazing. Apparently the media has access to better intelligence than the CIA, since the general public found out the protest didn’t exist just two days after the attack, via McClatchy.

Sources tell the Wall Street Journal that our intelligence officials are so clueless that they clung to the idea that there were protests outside the consulate, even after savvier Obama advisors became skeptical and started raising questions:

President Barack Obama was told in his daily intelligence briefing for more than a week after the consulate siege in Benghazi that the assault grew out of a spontaneous protest, despite conflicting reports from witnesses and other sources that began to cast doubt on the accuracy of that assessment almost from the start.

New details about the contents of the President’s Daily Brief, which haven’t been reported previously, show that the Central Intelligence Agency didn’t adjust the classified assessment until Sept. 22, fueling tensions between the administration and the agency. …

That weekend, officials at the office of the Director of National Intelligence began to seriously question the accuracy of the assessment after receiving new information Sept. 15 and Sept. 16 from sources that suggested the consulate attack wasn’t preceded by a protest.

Despite the building doubts at the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA stuck by its assessment during a deputies-level meeting at the White House on Sept. 17.

Even after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reportedly began to question the CIA’s account on September 15, the CIA allegedly refused to back down on the “spontaneous protest” claim until September 22. Question: The DNI compiles the presidential daily briefings from CIA intel, so how could it conclude the “spontaneous protest” line was wrong before the CIA did? And why would the CIA cling to a narrative if it had a preponderance of evidence contradicting it?

Plus — 11 days? The CIA had agents based in Benghazi. State Department officials in Washington said they were able to watch the attack unfolding in real time. The U.S. had at least one predator drone sending back footage from the onslaught. You would think eyewitnesses would have mentioned this afterward during debriefings. Are we supposed to believe the CIA questioned nobody?

Apparently. But sources assure the Wall Street Journal that the intelligence community isn’t completely incompetent. No, it just didn’t realize the existence (or nonexistence) of a protest was an important element to focus on:

CIA analysis was focused more on whether there was forewarning of the attack and who was behind it, a senior U.S. official said, adding that the question of a protest preceding the attack is the least important component of the analysis.

“What’s getting lost is how small this change actually was. … It doesn’t matter whether there were protests ongoing at the time,” the senior U.S. official said, adding that the analysis reflected from the beginning that “the attack was conducted by terrorists and most likely inspired by events in Cairo.”

If it was so trivial, you wonder why the White House spokesperson spent entire press briefings trying to convince reporters that the protest story was true. And if the DNI was allegedly so skeptical of the story the CIA was supposedly telling, why didn’t the Obama administration just keep its collective mouth shut on the protest narrative? They were the ones publicly hyping it for nearly two weeks, not the CIA.

It sounds like the White House has no good defense for its bungled response to the Benghazi attack, so it’s trying to muddy the waters before tonight’s debate. Yes, they’re probably throwing the CIA under the bus in one of the most classless and damaging ways possible. But by the time intelligence officials start anonymously refuting the charges, it will be after the debate and won’t matter (at least not politically).

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Did Intelligence Tell WH There Were Protests in Benghazi?

The White House has clarified Vice President Biden’s comment that he wasn’t aware of security requests, saying he was speaking for himself and President Obama, not the State Department. But they still haven’t explained Biden’s even more troubling claim that the intelligence community told the White House there were protesters outside the Benghazi embassy:

MS. RADDATZ: What were you first told about the attack? Why were people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go on for weeks?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Because that’s exactly what we were told —

MS. RADDATZ: By who?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: — by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.

When the Obama administration rolled out its initial “blame the video” storyline in the days after the attack, they strongly implied that there was a protest outside the Benghazi consulate, but usually avoided stating it explicitly. If you listen to Jay Carney, Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, they tended to use vague words like “spontaneous reaction” and “unrest.” When they did use the word “protests,” it was usually in reference to the demonstrations across the Muslim world, not Benghazi specifically.

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The White House has clarified Vice President Biden’s comment that he wasn’t aware of security requests, saying he was speaking for himself and President Obama, not the State Department. But they still haven’t explained Biden’s even more troubling claim that the intelligence community told the White House there were protesters outside the Benghazi embassy:

MS. RADDATZ: What were you first told about the attack? Why were people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go on for weeks?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Because that’s exactly what we were told —

MS. RADDATZ: By who?

VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: — by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that. As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.

When the Obama administration rolled out its initial “blame the video” storyline in the days after the attack, they strongly implied that there was a protest outside the Benghazi consulate, but usually avoided stating it explicitly. If you listen to Jay Carney, Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, they tended to use vague words like “spontaneous reaction” and “unrest.” When they did use the word “protests,” it was usually in reference to the demonstrations across the Muslim world, not Benghazi specifically.

This is because the CIA intelligence at the time didn’t support the idea that there was a protest outside the consulate. By cherry-picking the initial intelligence report, the administration could provide some flimsy cover for its claim that the terrorist attack was a “spontaneous reaction” to the Cairo demonstrations over the video. But no amount of intelligence manipulation can create a protest where none existed.

Biden’s unequivocal claim that the intelligence community told the White House there were protesters is simply not credible, and, worse, it glues the administration to its failed initial narrative. White House spokesperson Jay Carney had spent weeks slowly backing away from the protest story, and Biden has now made that impossible.

There are also risks to scapegoating the intelligence community, as FP’s Peter Feaver writes:

Second, the IC can fight back. Frustration has been mounting for years within the IC over the way the administration has politicized intelligence. At some point, that frustration could bubble over into retaliatory leaks and damaging revelations.

So far, the Obama campaign has been careful not to finger a specific person as the scapegoat. Last night, Biden kept it vague. But the talking points Biden was hiding behind were CIA talking points and the head of the CIA is David Petraeus, undoubtedly the person in the administration the American people trust most on national security — and yet, paradoxically, perhaps the person the hardened partisans in the Obama White House trust the least. I have been surprised that Petraeus has not personally been drawn into the fight thus far, but I wonder if he heard Biden calling him out last night.

Benghazi was reportedly teeming with CIA operatives; a top State Department official has testified that she monitored the entire attack in real time; and there were survivors who were able to piece together a tick-tock of the attack for the media. The CIA should would have easily known if there was or a protest outside or not, so Biden’s comment is a blatant accusation of incompetence.

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What’s Wrong with U.S. Intelligence?

Shortly before protestors poured into the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to put the final nail into the coffin of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the headline on the Presidential Daily Brief produced by the Central Intelligence Agency for the president was, according to word among administration officials, something to the effect of “Tunisian Unrest Unlikely to Spread to Egypt.”

It is no secret that the Arab Spring uprisings took not only the United States by surprise, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamists as well. The Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum but, in recent days, the radicals appear to be unfurling a deliberate plan to whip up fervor and seize the initiative. The Bolsheviks are now supplanting the Mensheviks. This, too, appears to have caught the CIA and many of our diplomats stationed in the Middle East by surprise.  It shouldn’t have: During the Iranian crisis 33-years ago, radicals seized the US Embassy as much to rally the hardliners for domestic reasons as they did out of animus toward the United States.

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Shortly before protestors poured into the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to put the final nail into the coffin of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the headline on the Presidential Daily Brief produced by the Central Intelligence Agency for the president was, according to word among administration officials, something to the effect of “Tunisian Unrest Unlikely to Spread to Egypt.”

It is no secret that the Arab Spring uprisings took not only the United States by surprise, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamists as well. The Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum but, in recent days, the radicals appear to be unfurling a deliberate plan to whip up fervor and seize the initiative. The Bolsheviks are now supplanting the Mensheviks. This, too, appears to have caught the CIA and many of our diplomats stationed in the Middle East by surprise.  It shouldn’t have: During the Iranian crisis 33-years ago, radicals seized the US Embassy as much to rally the hardliners for domestic reasons as they did out of animus toward the United States.

The notion that this was a spontaneous reaction to a provocative film is inane. After all, someone dubbed that film and distributed it widely with nary a U.S. official aware. Facebook was used to inflame tensions and call for rallies. Perhaps, once again, diplomats are spending too much time engaging with high level officials to the detriment of spending time on the street, not with intellectuals, but taking the pulse of more disgruntled segments of society. A recent traveler to Tunisia told me a few days ago that many young people there were listless, just waiting for something to happen.

In subsequent days, the contradictions about whether the United States had warning ahead of time will get resolved. It would be tragic if, more than a decade after 9/11, some in the administration had foreknowledge but could not get that information to the right people in time.

Congress was correct to investigate the intelligence failures that colored the George W. Bush administration decision to intervene in Iraq. Intelligence failures under the Obama administration may be different, but their implications could be just as profound. Perhaps it is time—in a serious, non-partisan way—to examine why it is that the CIA and State Department continue to be caught so flat-footed in the Arab world.

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How Good Is Our Intelligence on Iran?

I join my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams and my Contentions colleague Jonathan Tobin in expressing reservations about whether the U.S. government really has the degree of insight into Iran’s nuclear program claimed in carefully orchestrated leaks such as this Washington Post article which brags about how stealthy CIA drones have penetrated deep into Iranian air space.

There is, I fear, not only political spin at work here (the administration wants to showcase U.S. intelligence capabilities to ward off an Israeli strike) but also deep-seated hubris on the part of the intelligence community. Perhaps the CIA has high-level assets within the Iranian government who for understandable reasons go unmentioned in the Washington Post article; but if we are indeed primarily reliant on signals intelligence and aerial surveillance, as the article implies, then we may be in for a nasty shock.

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I join my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams and my Contentions colleague Jonathan Tobin in expressing reservations about whether the U.S. government really has the degree of insight into Iran’s nuclear program claimed in carefully orchestrated leaks such as this Washington Post article which brags about how stealthy CIA drones have penetrated deep into Iranian air space.

There is, I fear, not only political spin at work here (the administration wants to showcase U.S. intelligence capabilities to ward off an Israeli strike) but also deep-seated hubris on the part of the intelligence community. Perhaps the CIA has high-level assets within the Iranian government who for understandable reasons go unmentioned in the Washington Post article; but if we are indeed primarily reliant on signals intelligence and aerial surveillance, as the article implies, then we may be in for a nasty shock.

Indeed, we have experienced such surprises many times before–for instance, the U.S. intelligence community was caught off guard by the Pakistani nuclear test in 1998 and the North Korean test in 2006–and this at a time when U.S. intelligence capabilities were nearly as advanced as they are today. The reality is that our enemies are aware of many of our high-tech spying techniques (e.g. a stealth drone crashed in Iran) and know how to cloak their activities to prevent the full shape of their efforts from becoming clear.

I would be a lot more convinced by accounts such as the one in the Post if the anonymous intelligence officials quoted therein expressed some degree of humility about their ability to penetrate the deepest recesses of a closed political and military system such as Iran. The fact that they come across as being so utterly confident in their judgments makes them paradoxically less trustworthy: They are failing to question their assumptions just as they failed to question their assumptions about Iraq’s WMD program prior to the U.S. invasion.

 

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Can Obama Interpret Iran’s Mixed Signals?

As we first noted last week, Iran’s program of diplomatic gamesmanship aimed at confusing and unnerving the Obama administration has begun. Last week, the Iranians started to dicker about the site of the scheduled talks with the West about their nuclear program that had already been decided. Now, as this report shows, the Iranians are proceeding to muddy the waters further by sending out conflicting messages–with one of their high-ranking officials signaling their willingness to compromise on their uranium enrichment and another that they would not. It’s the same old song they’ve been singing for years whose only purpose is drag out any negotiations so as to give their scientists more time to get closer to their nuclear goal.

But to focus on these shenanigans is somewhat beside the point. The problem is not what the Iranians are saying but Washington’s ability to interpret its true meaning. And it is on that score that Washington seems to be the most at sea. The Obama administration has been leaking reports about its intelligence prowess so as to undermine any notion that its evaluation of Iran’s capabilities is not underestimating Tehran’s nuclear progress or wrong about its not having made a decision to build a bomb. But as with previous intelligence disasters, including the one in Iraq that the CIA seeks to atone for, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the president or his team that they are desperately short of human insight on what the ayatollahs are thinking.

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As we first noted last week, Iran’s program of diplomatic gamesmanship aimed at confusing and unnerving the Obama administration has begun. Last week, the Iranians started to dicker about the site of the scheduled talks with the West about their nuclear program that had already been decided. Now, as this report shows, the Iranians are proceeding to muddy the waters further by sending out conflicting messages–with one of their high-ranking officials signaling their willingness to compromise on their uranium enrichment and another that they would not. It’s the same old song they’ve been singing for years whose only purpose is drag out any negotiations so as to give their scientists more time to get closer to their nuclear goal.

But to focus on these shenanigans is somewhat beside the point. The problem is not what the Iranians are saying but Washington’s ability to interpret its true meaning. And it is on that score that Washington seems to be the most at sea. The Obama administration has been leaking reports about its intelligence prowess so as to undermine any notion that its evaluation of Iran’s capabilities is not underestimating Tehran’s nuclear progress or wrong about its not having made a decision to build a bomb. But as with previous intelligence disasters, including the one in Iraq that the CIA seeks to atone for, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the president or his team that they are desperately short of human insight on what the ayatollahs are thinking.

The latest in the administration’s Iran leakfest was a Washington Post story published this past weekend in which a “senior intelligence official” bragged of the CIA’s high-tech spy drones that have produced so much interesting material for them to analyze. The piece was intended to portray the Iran task force in which the CIA, the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence operatives combine their efforts as having produced enough input as to give their political masters confidence there is no imminent danger of Iran succeeding in building a bomb or that they had even decided to build one in the first place.

Let’s hope they’re right, but the smug tone of this and similar pieces of puffery aimed at lionizing America’s spooks and pouring cold water on other, less optimistic evaluations of Iran’s nuclear program ought to worry anyone relying on this assessment. The problem is that even though America’s remote spying may be effective, as a previous leaked story from within the intelligence fold admitted, all the intercepted messages and satellite photos don’t give you the ability to understand what you are looking at. For that you need human intelligence, and on that score, Washington has admitted it has even less of that commodity from Iran than it does from North Korea. When it comes to understanding what the Islamist regime’s leaders are thinking, the U.S. is still flying blind.

That’s why the Iranians’ stall tactics and mixed signals on negotiations must be maddening to the administration. None of the satellite photos can tell them what Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s intentions are or whether he is capable of walking his country back from the brink of a conflict with the West that few believe President Obama really wants. Nor can they be sure they are taking the right pictures from the satellites.

As Iran prepares to once again try to hold the ball and run out the clock on Obama, none of the leaks whose purpose it is to instill perhaps unwarranted confidence in American intelligence can assure us that either he or his staff understands what the Iranians intend. So long as that is true, it is the Iranians who should be feeling confident.

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U.S. Intelligence Flying Blind on Iran

Today’s front page New York Times feature detailing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran isn’t working to build a nuclear weapon ought to provide encouragement for those opposed to tough American action on the issue. Bookended with parallel arguments being put forward by many in the Washington foreign policy establishment that a nuclear Iran would be easily contained, this presents the country with a pair of calming notions: Iran isn’t going nuclear but even if it is, it’s no big deal.

However, the most distressing aspect of the piece, which is the product of highly placed anonymous sources within the intelligence establishment, is not so much the lack of alarm on the part of those who are supposed to be the nation’s eyes and ears so much as the fact that they are also willing to admit that they haven’t a clue as to what is actually happening in Iran. The article contains startling admissions that the Islamist tyranny is a mystery to American officials. One went so far as to say that U.S. intelligence agencies view it as even more of a closed book to them than the hermit-like regime in North Korea. Considering their disgraceful failure to prepare the government for the possibility that the North Koreans were on the brink of nuclear capability, this confession should undermine the credibility of the same officials’ boast that they are certain no Iranian nuke is in the works.

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Today’s front page New York Times feature detailing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran isn’t working to build a nuclear weapon ought to provide encouragement for those opposed to tough American action on the issue. Bookended with parallel arguments being put forward by many in the Washington foreign policy establishment that a nuclear Iran would be easily contained, this presents the country with a pair of calming notions: Iran isn’t going nuclear but even if it is, it’s no big deal.

However, the most distressing aspect of the piece, which is the product of highly placed anonymous sources within the intelligence establishment, is not so much the lack of alarm on the part of those who are supposed to be the nation’s eyes and ears so much as the fact that they are also willing to admit that they haven’t a clue as to what is actually happening in Iran. The article contains startling admissions that the Islamist tyranny is a mystery to American officials. One went so far as to say that U.S. intelligence agencies view it as even more of a closed book to them than the hermit-like regime in North Korea. Considering their disgraceful failure to prepare the government for the possibility that the North Koreans were on the brink of nuclear capability, this confession should undermine the credibility of the same officials’ boast that they are certain no Iranian nuke is in the works.

Many writing about the intelligence about Iran continually speak of the days before the invasion of Iraq when we were assured by the government that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. Since it was already proven that he had used chemical weapons on his own people and had a nuclear program before Israel destroyed the Osirak reactor in 1981, these were not unreasonable conclusions even if they turned out to be wrong. However that failure, which led to charges that the intelligence community’s convictions about Iraq were wrongly influenced by political considerations, has led to a passionate determination on the part of those in charge that they will never sign off on any conclusion about this sort of an issue again if it will be used as an excuse to go to war. Like generals who always prepare for the surprises they faced in the previous war, America’s spies will never raise the alarms about WMDs again.

Fear of repeating mistakes is understandable. But history rarely repeats itself in this manner. That makes beliefs grounded in that fear often as wrongheaded as the original errors. If the intelligence community’s beliefs about Iraq were incorrectly influenced by a desire to agree with the Bush administration’s predilections then it is just as easy to argue that its current views about Iran might be just as mistaken.

But no matter what is influencing their opinions, it is difficult to work up much confidence in the conclusions of agencies that are so open about the fact that they are flying blind in Iran. Though the anonymous officials have confidence in their non-human assets, they are quick to dismiss any evidence, such as the recent satellite images that have led the International Atomic Energy Agency to suspect that work on weaponization of nuclear material is being carried on in Iran simply because it does not fit into their preconceptions about the regime. But it’s clear that the lack of input about Iranian intentions that can only come from real human intelligence has crippled American agencies to the point where it has become an article of faith on their part that they must be right, even if they can’t back up those conclusions with any evidence.

What we are witnessing here is the sort of cyclical group-think that will be reversed once again if the Iranians confound our spooks the way the supposedly easier to read North Koreans did. Another U.S. intelligence failure will simply make their analysts lean more on the side of action the next time around. But the problem for Israel, the Middle East and the world is that if they are wrong about Iran, the consequences of that mistake will be far worse than even those generated by the Iraq disaster.

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Iranian Scientists’ Goals Should Be No Secret

The Drudge Report is including a link to an Israel National News story quoting an Iranian press report in which the widow of an Iranian nuclear scientist acknowledged that her husband sought “Israel’s annihilation.” Even before Drudge amplified it into headline news, this was a story that the keen eye of Jonathan Tobin had earlier picked up. But, it’s hardly the first time that Iranian officials intimately involved in their covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs have made this admission. In November 2011, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hassan Tehrani-Moghadam died in a mysterious explosion that flattened the missile facility in which he worked. The Iranian press subsequently published his last will and testament, a document in which he requested the epitaph, “This is the grave of someone who wanted to destroy Israel.”

There’s a school of foreign policy thought predominant in the United States which teaches officials to ignore rhetoric. This would be a mistake, one which should have been corrected after the George H.W. Bush administration and the State Department largely ignored Saddam Hussein’s threats against Kuwait, only to learn that the dictator actually meant what he said.

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The Drudge Report is including a link to an Israel National News story quoting an Iranian press report in which the widow of an Iranian nuclear scientist acknowledged that her husband sought “Israel’s annihilation.” Even before Drudge amplified it into headline news, this was a story that the keen eye of Jonathan Tobin had earlier picked up. But, it’s hardly the first time that Iranian officials intimately involved in their covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs have made this admission. In November 2011, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hassan Tehrani-Moghadam died in a mysterious explosion that flattened the missile facility in which he worked. The Iranian press subsequently published his last will and testament, a document in which he requested the epitaph, “This is the grave of someone who wanted to destroy Israel.”

There’s a school of foreign policy thought predominant in the United States which teaches officials to ignore rhetoric. This would be a mistake, one which should have been corrected after the George H.W. Bush administration and the State Department largely ignored Saddam Hussein’s threats against Kuwait, only to learn that the dictator actually meant what he said.

In government and intelligence circles, there is a persistent problem in which people cleared to read high level intelligence spend disproportionate time leafing through intercepts to the exclusion of the open-source material—newspapers and television transcripts—for which everyone is cleared. Intelligence is 90 percent open source, so to focus on the ten percent to the exclusion of the rest gives a skewed perspective. It is time the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency realize that when the Iranian regime says something in Persian, it might mean it, even if no one is around to translate it into English and even if it was only said in a national newspaper rather than a hurried cell phone call.

Ignoring rhetoric because they come through unclassified media is intelligence incompetence, but dismissing what the Iranians say becomes policy malpractice of the highest order.

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U.S. Getting Smart Too Late on Iran

If you look at the “2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment” presented on February 16 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and compare it with the “2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment,” you find a startling development. Last year, the assessment was “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” This year it is, “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.”

The new assessment is apparently based on a revised judgment, not new intelligence, since it cites the same evidence as the 2011 assessment, but comes to a different conclusion. It illustrates the fact that the key is nuclear weapons capability, not production. Once capability is achieved, the critical technical line has been crossed; after that, production is a political decision that cannot easily be discovered until after the fact. As Iran heads down the same path traversed by North Korea, consider Clapper’s February 16 responses to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Iran’s activities:

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If you look at the “2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment” presented on February 16 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and compare it with the “2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment,” you find a startling development. Last year, the assessment was “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” This year it is, “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.”

The new assessment is apparently based on a revised judgment, not new intelligence, since it cites the same evidence as the 2011 assessment, but comes to a different conclusion. It illustrates the fact that the key is nuclear weapons capability, not production. Once capability is achieved, the critical technical line has been crossed; after that, production is a political decision that cannot easily be discovered until after the fact. As Iran heads down the same path traversed by North Korea, consider Clapper’s February 16 responses to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Iran’s activities:

SEN. GRAHAM: Do you think they’re building these power plants for peaceful nuclear power generation purposes?

CLAPPER: That remains to be seen.

SEN. GRAHAM: You have doubt about the Iranians’ intention when it comes to making a nuclear weapon?

CLAPPER: Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh, I –

SEN. GRAHAM: You’re not so sure they’re trying to make a bomb? You doubt whether or not they are trying to create a nuclear bomb?

CLAPPER: I think they are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

SEN. GRAHAM: How would we know when they have made that decision?

CLAPPER: I am happy to discuss that with you in closed session.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well I guess my point is that I take a different view. I’m very convinced that they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon. I can’t read anyone’s mind, but it seems logical to me that they believe that if they get a nuclear weapon they’ll become North Korea

What we do know Iran has done – and has been doing for some time – is build a “covert” uranium enrichment facility, constructed underground in the mountains near Qom, hidden for years from the international community, with enrichment operations commencing in “blatant disregard” of multiple UN and IAEA resolutions, with “no plausible justification” except to bring Iran “a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.” The quoted language is from Hillary Clinton’s press release last month. The huge underground site is a major expansion of Iran’s program.

Last month, President Obama said America is determined to prevent Iran from “getting a nuclear weapon.” Secretary Panetta said if we “get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.” But waiting for intelligence about getting a nuclear weapon – instead of preventing nuclear weapons capability – sets the red line where a violation can neither be timely detected nor effectively reversed, as the North Korea experience demonstrates.

A group of 32 senators introduced a resolution on February 16 that would affirm a “vital national interest” in preventing Iran from “acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” and reject any policy relying on “containment” of a nuclear weapons capable Iran. It is an effort to avoid repeating the sad story of American diplomacy and intelligence between 2003 – when President Bush declared the U.S. would “not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea” – and 2012, when Director Clapper acknowledged that North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.

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RE: Curb Your Enthusiasm

I agree with Jonathan Tobin: the predicted delay in Iran’s achievement of a working nuclear weapon is the mildest of good news. For one thing, the year 2015 has figured in the CIA’s outside projection for over a decade. U.S. intelligence estimates have hewed to a time frame of 2009-2015 since 1999. Even the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate used that as the projected period in which Iran was most likely to succeed in weaponizing a nuke.

This means that reference to the year 2015 has been a factor in every step taken by the U.S., the P5+1, and the UN over the past decade. We have made our policy on the basis of that year. It’s not a new planning factor or a signal that our basis for policy should change. We have always assumed it could take Iran until 2015 to have a working nuke. And even when it became clear that a working nuke wouldn’t emerge in 2009, the year 2015 nevertheless justified urgent concern. We will only get closer to it from here.

It also bears reiterating that Stuxnet is irrelevant to Iran’s progress toward weaponization. The assassination of nuclear scientists is on point when it comes to weaponization; the operation of Stuxnet is not. The virus can delay the accumulation of an arsenal, but its design and purpose are not geared to the weaponization process.

It’s not clear to me why Meir Dagan’s summary was made available to the media. Outgoing leaders usually celebrate the successes of their organizations as they take their leave, but the risk is high that these particular successes, as framed in the Dagan report, will be misinterpreted. Complacency about the time available to us is dangerously misguided: to date, delaying our decision deadline for effective action has only allowed Iran to achieve greater success and self-sufficiency in its nuclear pursuits.

I agree with Jonathan Tobin: the predicted delay in Iran’s achievement of a working nuclear weapon is the mildest of good news. For one thing, the year 2015 has figured in the CIA’s outside projection for over a decade. U.S. intelligence estimates have hewed to a time frame of 2009-2015 since 1999. Even the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate used that as the projected period in which Iran was most likely to succeed in weaponizing a nuke.

This means that reference to the year 2015 has been a factor in every step taken by the U.S., the P5+1, and the UN over the past decade. We have made our policy on the basis of that year. It’s not a new planning factor or a signal that our basis for policy should change. We have always assumed it could take Iran until 2015 to have a working nuke. And even when it became clear that a working nuke wouldn’t emerge in 2009, the year 2015 nevertheless justified urgent concern. We will only get closer to it from here.

It also bears reiterating that Stuxnet is irrelevant to Iran’s progress toward weaponization. The assassination of nuclear scientists is on point when it comes to weaponization; the operation of Stuxnet is not. The virus can delay the accumulation of an arsenal, but its design and purpose are not geared to the weaponization process.

It’s not clear to me why Meir Dagan’s summary was made available to the media. Outgoing leaders usually celebrate the successes of their organizations as they take their leave, but the risk is high that these particular successes, as framed in the Dagan report, will be misinterpreted. Complacency about the time available to us is dangerously misguided: to date, delaying our decision deadline for effective action has only allowed Iran to achieve greater success and self-sufficiency in its nuclear pursuits.

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The War in Afghanistan Is Part of the Larger Struggle Against Global Terrorism

When I recently participated in an Intelligence Squared US debate about Afghanistan, my debate partner, terrorism expert Peter Bergen (who, like me, argued that it’s not a lost cause), was practically hooted off the stage by a skeptical audience when he said there was not much difference between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Now his insight is confirmed by U.S. intelligence reporting.

As described in the New York Times, “New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like ‘a syndicate,’ joining forces in ways not seen before.” The elements of the “syndicate” cited are the Quetta Shura Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani Network, and HiG (Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin), which are increasingly cooperating to stage attacks in Afghanistan from their safe havens in Pakistan. But all three have close links to other jihadist groups based in Pakistan, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban (aka the Pakistan Taliban), and, lest we forget, al-Qaeda. An American officer quoted by the Times does a good job of summing up the state of play among the jihadists:

“This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks, Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.”

If that’s the case — and the preponderance of intelligence reporting certainly points in that direction — then it’s silly to disassociate the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as so many critics of the war effort do, from the broader struggle against jihadist groups bent on inflicting serious harm on America and on our allies. There are real differences among the jihadist groups, but there is also a growing commonality of tactics and purpose. The war in Afghanistan is part of a broader struggle — a global war — that we must win not only to safeguard distant allies but also our own territory.

When I recently participated in an Intelligence Squared US debate about Afghanistan, my debate partner, terrorism expert Peter Bergen (who, like me, argued that it’s not a lost cause), was practically hooted off the stage by a skeptical audience when he said there was not much difference between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Now his insight is confirmed by U.S. intelligence reporting.

As described in the New York Times, “New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like ‘a syndicate,’ joining forces in ways not seen before.” The elements of the “syndicate” cited are the Quetta Shura Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani Network, and HiG (Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin), which are increasingly cooperating to stage attacks in Afghanistan from their safe havens in Pakistan. But all three have close links to other jihadist groups based in Pakistan, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban (aka the Pakistan Taliban), and, lest we forget, al-Qaeda. An American officer quoted by the Times does a good job of summing up the state of play among the jihadists:

“This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks, Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.”

If that’s the case — and the preponderance of intelligence reporting certainly points in that direction — then it’s silly to disassociate the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as so many critics of the war effort do, from the broader struggle against jihadist groups bent on inflicting serious harm on America and on our allies. There are real differences among the jihadist groups, but there is also a growing commonality of tactics and purpose. The war in Afghanistan is part of a broader struggle — a global war — that we must win not only to safeguard distant allies but also our own territory.

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More Long-Term Repercussions of WikiLeaks

According to some media reports, the U.S. government is exaggerating the security threat of the latest WikiLeaks document dump. Take this McClatchy article, for instance. First the paper chides U.S. officials for “overstating the danger from WikiLeaks,” and then it commends reporters for their “unprecedented act of self censorship” by withholding information that could have put innocent lives in danger.

“[D]espite similar warnings ahead of the previous two massive releases of classified U.S. intelligence reports by the website, U.S. officials concede that they have no evidence to date that the documents led to anyone’s death,” reported McClatchy.

The paper said that Julian Assange and the reporters he leaked to took all the proper precautions to “ensure nothing released could endanger lives or national security.”

And French newspaper Le Monde, one of the initial five media organizations to receive the documents, added that “All the identities of people the journalists believed would be threatened were redacted.” News outlets apparently even coordinated with WikiLeaks to “ensure sensitive data didn’t appear on the organization’s website.”

I suppose stories like these may help WikiLeaks’s defenders sleep well at night. But they shouldn’t. People who think that vulnerable human rights activists and journalists were the only ones endangered by the release of the documents are sadly mistaken. The leak doesn’t pose a threat just to the individuals directly mentioned in the cables; it puts all Americans (and our allies in the war on terror) in danger. As James Gordon Meek notes at the New York Daily News, WikiLeaks may have severely compromised the ability of U.S. officials to obtain intelligence about future terrorist attacks on our soil and around the world:

Allies in countries with populations that aren’t pro-U.S. may simply let Americans die rather than pass on tips about terror suspects if they think their secret role will wind up in the public eye.

Leaks that keep the government honest are good — but not if they ultimately put innocents in the terrorists’ cross hairs.

Preventing attacks in the U.S. isn’t just about eavesdropping with high-tech gadgets, invisible ink and undercover ops. It’s about relationships with tenuous allies from Islamabad to Sana’a. These disclosures may choke off critical intelligence to thwart terrorism, such as last month’s attempted bombings of U.S.-bound cargo planes from Yemen. That plot was stopped after a tip from Saudi Arabia — not long ago an unreliable partner against Al Qaeda.

These closet allies have little to lose if they neglect to warn the U.S. of a potential terror attack. But if their covert cooperation with our government is exposed, they run the risk of losing political capital within their own countries. Add that to the WikiLeaks-fueled perception that the U.S. can’t keep a handle on its own secret documents, and this could hinder our national security intelligence-gathering for years to come.

According to some media reports, the U.S. government is exaggerating the security threat of the latest WikiLeaks document dump. Take this McClatchy article, for instance. First the paper chides U.S. officials for “overstating the danger from WikiLeaks,” and then it commends reporters for their “unprecedented act of self censorship” by withholding information that could have put innocent lives in danger.

“[D]espite similar warnings ahead of the previous two massive releases of classified U.S. intelligence reports by the website, U.S. officials concede that they have no evidence to date that the documents led to anyone’s death,” reported McClatchy.

The paper said that Julian Assange and the reporters he leaked to took all the proper precautions to “ensure nothing released could endanger lives or national security.”

And French newspaper Le Monde, one of the initial five media organizations to receive the documents, added that “All the identities of people the journalists believed would be threatened were redacted.” News outlets apparently even coordinated with WikiLeaks to “ensure sensitive data didn’t appear on the organization’s website.”

I suppose stories like these may help WikiLeaks’s defenders sleep well at night. But they shouldn’t. People who think that vulnerable human rights activists and journalists were the only ones endangered by the release of the documents are sadly mistaken. The leak doesn’t pose a threat just to the individuals directly mentioned in the cables; it puts all Americans (and our allies in the war on terror) in danger. As James Gordon Meek notes at the New York Daily News, WikiLeaks may have severely compromised the ability of U.S. officials to obtain intelligence about future terrorist attacks on our soil and around the world:

Allies in countries with populations that aren’t pro-U.S. may simply let Americans die rather than pass on tips about terror suspects if they think their secret role will wind up in the public eye.

Leaks that keep the government honest are good — but not if they ultimately put innocents in the terrorists’ cross hairs.

Preventing attacks in the U.S. isn’t just about eavesdropping with high-tech gadgets, invisible ink and undercover ops. It’s about relationships with tenuous allies from Islamabad to Sana’a. These disclosures may choke off critical intelligence to thwart terrorism, such as last month’s attempted bombings of U.S.-bound cargo planes from Yemen. That plot was stopped after a tip from Saudi Arabia — not long ago an unreliable partner against Al Qaeda.

These closet allies have little to lose if they neglect to warn the U.S. of a potential terror attack. But if their covert cooperation with our government is exposed, they run the risk of losing political capital within their own countries. Add that to the WikiLeaks-fueled perception that the U.S. can’t keep a handle on its own secret documents, and this could hinder our national security intelligence-gathering for years to come.

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Arming the Terrorists: Try, Try Again

Nigerian authorities opened cargo containers this week to find a large shipment of unauthorized arms at their port. Tightened surveillance in East Africa may be forcing Iran to ship arms to Hamas from transfer points further and further from Gaza: Israeli authorities suspect that the arms shipment, which was dropped off by an Iranian ship in July disguised as construction materials, was intended for Hamas.

On first glance, the implied route seems prohibitive. Getting the shipment to Gaza from a Nigerian port would still involve one or more transit paths that are under vigilant surveillance by regional authorities. Land transport to Egypt is the least likely method; besides poor road quality and the problems of highway bandits and border crossings, there was apparently no arrangement made for follow-on handling of the arms shipment inside Nigeria.

The way the cargo was dropped off suggests that it was supposed to be transshipped through Lagos to another port, perhaps somewhere on the North African coast. A local report indicates the agent in Nigeria was an Iranian businessman who has gone into hiding. The advantage of the swap in Nigeria would have been that a non-Iranian ship carried the arms cargo into the Mediterranean, where Israeli and U.S. intelligence, between them, are fully embedded with most port authorities.

The shipment was essentially orphaned at the drop-off point, however. A Nigerian official reports that there was a ham-handed attempt at bribing the port authorities to turn a blind eye to the cargo, which arrived without proper documentation. When that didn’t work, the drop-off ship simply left the port. The cargo sat unprocessed in its containers for months.

It’s possible that the arms were destined for the Shia Muslim Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria. If they were, this would be the first detected instance of Iran trying to arm that insurgency directly. But Boko Haram’s arms route reportedly snakes across the northern border with Algeria, an arrangement dictated by the fact that the central government and the Christians of Nigeria’s south hold the ports. Moreover, Iran has been cultivating economic ties with Nigeria in the hope of importing uranium. Jeopardizing that relationship by arming an insurgency would appear counterproductive even to the unique geopolitical perspective in Tehran.

Perhaps the best news, if this was an arms shipment intended for Hamas, is that the Iranians seem to have miscalculated the law-enforcement environment in Nigeria’s ports. Presumably they will learn from this failure and prepare better for the next attempt. There are a lot of West African ports to choose from. We can be certain Iran will try again.

Nigerian authorities opened cargo containers this week to find a large shipment of unauthorized arms at their port. Tightened surveillance in East Africa may be forcing Iran to ship arms to Hamas from transfer points further and further from Gaza: Israeli authorities suspect that the arms shipment, which was dropped off by an Iranian ship in July disguised as construction materials, was intended for Hamas.

On first glance, the implied route seems prohibitive. Getting the shipment to Gaza from a Nigerian port would still involve one or more transit paths that are under vigilant surveillance by regional authorities. Land transport to Egypt is the least likely method; besides poor road quality and the problems of highway bandits and border crossings, there was apparently no arrangement made for follow-on handling of the arms shipment inside Nigeria.

The way the cargo was dropped off suggests that it was supposed to be transshipped through Lagos to another port, perhaps somewhere on the North African coast. A local report indicates the agent in Nigeria was an Iranian businessman who has gone into hiding. The advantage of the swap in Nigeria would have been that a non-Iranian ship carried the arms cargo into the Mediterranean, where Israeli and U.S. intelligence, between them, are fully embedded with most port authorities.

The shipment was essentially orphaned at the drop-off point, however. A Nigerian official reports that there was a ham-handed attempt at bribing the port authorities to turn a blind eye to the cargo, which arrived without proper documentation. When that didn’t work, the drop-off ship simply left the port. The cargo sat unprocessed in its containers for months.

It’s possible that the arms were destined for the Shia Muslim Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria. If they were, this would be the first detected instance of Iran trying to arm that insurgency directly. But Boko Haram’s arms route reportedly snakes across the northern border with Algeria, an arrangement dictated by the fact that the central government and the Christians of Nigeria’s south hold the ports. Moreover, Iran has been cultivating economic ties with Nigeria in the hope of importing uranium. Jeopardizing that relationship by arming an insurgency would appear counterproductive even to the unique geopolitical perspective in Tehran.

Perhaps the best news, if this was an arms shipment intended for Hamas, is that the Iranians seem to have miscalculated the law-enforcement environment in Nigeria’s ports. Presumably they will learn from this failure and prepare better for the next attempt. There are a lot of West African ports to choose from. We can be certain Iran will try again.

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Spy Talk Illustrates Unreality of Mideast Talks

The debate over how the Israeli government will deal with the expiration of its six-month settlement freeze in the West Bank got stranger yesterday when both the New York Times and Politico published stories alleging that Jerusalem had asked the United States whether it would free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for a freeze in settlements. According to the Times’s Isabel Kershner, such a deal would help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sell a renewal of the freeze to his coalition partners. Pollard’s fate was discussed in 1998 during the negotiations between Netanyahu and Bill Clinton over the Wye Plantation Agreement, one of the many interim agreements that stemmed from the failed Oslo peace process. At that time, the U.S. intelligence community revolted at the idea of freeing Pollard and wound up spiking the proposal.

The anonymous sources for the current reports don’t seem to be based on anything more than rumination inside the prime minister’s bureau, but Israel’s interest in springing Pollard, an American Jew who has spent the last 25 years in prison for spying for the Israelis while he served as a U.S. Navy analyst, is a longstanding issue. While Pollard was guilty of a very serious crime and deserved punishment, his sentence was extremely harsh when compared with the treatment of others who spied here on behalf of allies. Some American Jews have foolishly lionized Pollard’s espionage, which did great harm to Israel and its alliance with the United States. It’s not entirely clear whether the reason Pollard is still in jail is due to his own refusal to express contrition for his actions or the continued intransigence of the American intelligence community. Either way, Pollard’s chances for clemency have long been considered remote. Yet, despite the fact that the heavy-handed tactics of some of his supporters alienated many who might otherwise have been sympathetic to Pollard’s plight and further undermined the chances of successful appeals for his release, there is still considerable sympathy for Pollard in Israel, where he is seen as a man who was exploited and then abandoned by his handlers.

But injecting Pollard into the delicate negotiations with the Obama administration and the Palestinian Authority is a tactic of questionable utility for Netanyahu. Though the idea that Pollard appears to be destined to rot in jail forever while those who spied here for hostile nations receive light sentences or are exchanged after virtually no time in prison strikes many Israelis as unjust, buying his freedom with a costly policy concession cannot be considered wise statecraft. Nor is it clear that Pollard’s release would do much to comfort Israeli right-wingers who are upset about a settlement freeze.

If anything, the floating of Pollard’s name in connection with the peace talks illustrates the lack of seriousness of these negotiations. The reality of Palestinian politics and the strength of Hamas mean there is no chance that the Palestinian Authority will sign any peace agreement, and both Abbas and Netanyahu are merely trying to act in such a manner as to evade blame for the eventual failure of the talks. So instead of serious give and take about final-status issues, we are hearing about tangential topics such as Pollard or Palestinian threats to walk out over the failure of Israeli to concede its position in the territories even before the talks begin. Whether or not the spy-exchange proposal is genuine, the discussion of such an eventuality says a lot more about the futility of President Obama’s ill-considered push for talks at a time when progress is virtually impossible than it does about Pollard’s fate.

The debate over how the Israeli government will deal with the expiration of its six-month settlement freeze in the West Bank got stranger yesterday when both the New York Times and Politico published stories alleging that Jerusalem had asked the United States whether it would free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for a freeze in settlements. According to the Times’s Isabel Kershner, such a deal would help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sell a renewal of the freeze to his coalition partners. Pollard’s fate was discussed in 1998 during the negotiations between Netanyahu and Bill Clinton over the Wye Plantation Agreement, one of the many interim agreements that stemmed from the failed Oslo peace process. At that time, the U.S. intelligence community revolted at the idea of freeing Pollard and wound up spiking the proposal.

The anonymous sources for the current reports don’t seem to be based on anything more than rumination inside the prime minister’s bureau, but Israel’s interest in springing Pollard, an American Jew who has spent the last 25 years in prison for spying for the Israelis while he served as a U.S. Navy analyst, is a longstanding issue. While Pollard was guilty of a very serious crime and deserved punishment, his sentence was extremely harsh when compared with the treatment of others who spied here on behalf of allies. Some American Jews have foolishly lionized Pollard’s espionage, which did great harm to Israel and its alliance with the United States. It’s not entirely clear whether the reason Pollard is still in jail is due to his own refusal to express contrition for his actions or the continued intransigence of the American intelligence community. Either way, Pollard’s chances for clemency have long been considered remote. Yet, despite the fact that the heavy-handed tactics of some of his supporters alienated many who might otherwise have been sympathetic to Pollard’s plight and further undermined the chances of successful appeals for his release, there is still considerable sympathy for Pollard in Israel, where he is seen as a man who was exploited and then abandoned by his handlers.

But injecting Pollard into the delicate negotiations with the Obama administration and the Palestinian Authority is a tactic of questionable utility for Netanyahu. Though the idea that Pollard appears to be destined to rot in jail forever while those who spied here for hostile nations receive light sentences or are exchanged after virtually no time in prison strikes many Israelis as unjust, buying his freedom with a costly policy concession cannot be considered wise statecraft. Nor is it clear that Pollard’s release would do much to comfort Israeli right-wingers who are upset about a settlement freeze.

If anything, the floating of Pollard’s name in connection with the peace talks illustrates the lack of seriousness of these negotiations. The reality of Palestinian politics and the strength of Hamas mean there is no chance that the Palestinian Authority will sign any peace agreement, and both Abbas and Netanyahu are merely trying to act in such a manner as to evade blame for the eventual failure of the talks. So instead of serious give and take about final-status issues, we are hearing about tangential topics such as Pollard or Palestinian threats to walk out over the failure of Israeli to concede its position in the territories even before the talks begin. Whether or not the spy-exchange proposal is genuine, the discussion of such an eventuality says a lot more about the futility of President Obama’s ill-considered push for talks at a time when progress is virtually impossible than it does about Pollard’s fate.

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Obama’s Race Obsession

It seems a lifetime ago that Obama represented hope for a post-racial presidency and in fact a post-racial era in American politics. Like so much else about Obama, the reality is the opposite of what was promised. Jake Tapper relates a rather amazing effort to inject race into the war against Islamic terrorists:

In an interview earlier today with the South African Broadcasting Corporation to air in a few hours, President Obama disparaged al Qaeda and affiliated groups’ willingness to kill Africans in a manner that White House aides say was an argument that the terrorist groups are racist.

Speaking about the Uganda bombings, the president said, “What you’ve seen in some of the statements that have been made by these terrorist organizations is that they do not regard African life as valuable in and of itself.  They see it as a potential place where you can carry out ideological battles that kill innocents without regard to long-term consequences for their short-term tactical gains.” …

Explaining the president’s comment, an administration official said Mr. Obama “references the fact that both U.S. intelligence and past al Qaeda actions make clear that al Qaeda — and the groups like al Shabaab that they inspire — do not value African life. The actions of al Qaeda and the groups that it has inspired show a willingness to sacrifice innocent African life to reach their targets.” … “In short,” the official said, “al Qaeda is a racist organization that treats black Africans like cannon fodder and does not value human life.”

Oh, good grief. Al-Qaeda isn’t a racist organization — it’s an organization that kills regardless of race anyone who stands in the way of its Islamo-fascist vision. The notion that it is racist is not only ignorant but also transparently manipulative. Does the administration really think that Africans can only be motivated if they think race is behind the slaughter of their people? And does Obama mean to suggest that al-Qaeda is pro-white? The mind reels.

It is this sort of thing that fills one with dread and raises this question: is there no limit to the lengths Obama will go to avoid spelling out the real motive behind Islamic fundamentalist terror? It’s the Islamic fundamentalism, of course. The Obami, however, would rather make up a counter-factual narrative and introduce a potentially divisive racial theme (don’t we want Europeans to take the war on terror seriously? what about Indonesians?) into the worldwide war against terrorism than be candid with the American people. Despite his worldly credentials, Obama’s foreign policy is strikingly condescending toward the rest of the world. Muslims will get confused and upset if we identify radical Islam as the basis for terrorism! Africans won’t join us unless they think it’s all about race!

I think we need a post-post-racial commander in chief who doesn’t assume that the rest of the world is populated by dolts.

It seems a lifetime ago that Obama represented hope for a post-racial presidency and in fact a post-racial era in American politics. Like so much else about Obama, the reality is the opposite of what was promised. Jake Tapper relates a rather amazing effort to inject race into the war against Islamic terrorists:

In an interview earlier today with the South African Broadcasting Corporation to air in a few hours, President Obama disparaged al Qaeda and affiliated groups’ willingness to kill Africans in a manner that White House aides say was an argument that the terrorist groups are racist.

Speaking about the Uganda bombings, the president said, “What you’ve seen in some of the statements that have been made by these terrorist organizations is that they do not regard African life as valuable in and of itself.  They see it as a potential place where you can carry out ideological battles that kill innocents without regard to long-term consequences for their short-term tactical gains.” …

Explaining the president’s comment, an administration official said Mr. Obama “references the fact that both U.S. intelligence and past al Qaeda actions make clear that al Qaeda — and the groups like al Shabaab that they inspire — do not value African life. The actions of al Qaeda and the groups that it has inspired show a willingness to sacrifice innocent African life to reach their targets.” … “In short,” the official said, “al Qaeda is a racist organization that treats black Africans like cannon fodder and does not value human life.”

Oh, good grief. Al-Qaeda isn’t a racist organization — it’s an organization that kills regardless of race anyone who stands in the way of its Islamo-fascist vision. The notion that it is racist is not only ignorant but also transparently manipulative. Does the administration really think that Africans can only be motivated if they think race is behind the slaughter of their people? And does Obama mean to suggest that al-Qaeda is pro-white? The mind reels.

It is this sort of thing that fills one with dread and raises this question: is there no limit to the lengths Obama will go to avoid spelling out the real motive behind Islamic fundamentalist terror? It’s the Islamic fundamentalism, of course. The Obami, however, would rather make up a counter-factual narrative and introduce a potentially divisive racial theme (don’t we want Europeans to take the war on terror seriously? what about Indonesians?) into the worldwide war against terrorism than be candid with the American people. Despite his worldly credentials, Obama’s foreign policy is strikingly condescending toward the rest of the world. Muslims will get confused and upset if we identify radical Islam as the basis for terrorism! Africans won’t join us unless they think it’s all about race!

I think we need a post-post-racial commander in chief who doesn’t assume that the rest of the world is populated by dolts.

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Ahmed Wali Karzai — Troublemaker in Afghanistan

The Washington Post has an important article on U.S. strategy in Kandahar, although it buries the biggest news in the middle of the story. Reporter Joshua Partlow begins by describing American attempts to bolster the power of Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa, a largely powerless former academic who spent more than a decade in exile in Canada. It is only in the middle of the story that Partlow notes that U.S. officials have given up on removing Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the provincial council and brother of Afghanistan’s president.

AWK, as U.S. officials describe him in internal deliberations, is the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan’s most important province, and he is rumored to be involved in corruption and drug dealing. Although the charges are widely believed, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have never been able to find any real substantiation. That, combined with AWK’s close relationship with his brother the president, have made him almost impossible to remove. Partlow notes:

Afghan officials and their NATO allies also have failed to confront the network of mafia-like bosses in Kandahar. In fact, NATO forces rely heavily on them, particularly Ahmed Wali Karzai, who benefits from U.S. government contracts and provides intelligence and security for logistics convoys.

Instead of pushing for his removal, U.S. officials want to consult with him more regularly, partly in a bid to limit his power. … In a series of recent meetings, American civilian and military officials told Karzai not to meddle in the work of the Afghan police, interfere with government appointments or rig the upcoming parliamentary elections. Without issuing specific threats, they made clear that, as one senior official put it, “it’s going to be painful” for him if he crosses these red lines.

The question is whether attempts to limit AWK’s power will succeed — and even if they do succeed, whether that will be enough to convince most people in Afghanistan, and indeed in the world, that U.S. forces are making real political progress in the south. Whatever the underlying facts, AWK has become a symbol of the corruption and brutality that too often characterize the government in Afghanistan. The very venality of government officials has been the biggest recruiting tool of the Taliban. It will be very hard for U.S. forces to convince anyone that conditions have truly improved in Kandahar — where a major military offensive is planned for the near future — if AWK remains in power. In fact, such an outcome may very well look to the average Afghan as an indication that U.S. forces are intent on bolstering the power of a corrupt clique associated with the Karzai brothers.

There is little doubt that U.S. and other NATO forces can win a military victory in Kandahar. But do they have a political strategy to match their military might? I am dubious. At the very least a lot more groundwork needs to be laid in the realm of strategic communications to convince the world that the coalition can win a meaningful victory in Kandahar without removing AWK from power.

The Washington Post has an important article on U.S. strategy in Kandahar, although it buries the biggest news in the middle of the story. Reporter Joshua Partlow begins by describing American attempts to bolster the power of Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa, a largely powerless former academic who spent more than a decade in exile in Canada. It is only in the middle of the story that Partlow notes that U.S. officials have given up on removing Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the provincial council and brother of Afghanistan’s president.

AWK, as U.S. officials describe him in internal deliberations, is the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan’s most important province, and he is rumored to be involved in corruption and drug dealing. Although the charges are widely believed, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have never been able to find any real substantiation. That, combined with AWK’s close relationship with his brother the president, have made him almost impossible to remove. Partlow notes:

Afghan officials and their NATO allies also have failed to confront the network of mafia-like bosses in Kandahar. In fact, NATO forces rely heavily on them, particularly Ahmed Wali Karzai, who benefits from U.S. government contracts and provides intelligence and security for logistics convoys.

Instead of pushing for his removal, U.S. officials want to consult with him more regularly, partly in a bid to limit his power. … In a series of recent meetings, American civilian and military officials told Karzai not to meddle in the work of the Afghan police, interfere with government appointments or rig the upcoming parliamentary elections. Without issuing specific threats, they made clear that, as one senior official put it, “it’s going to be painful” for him if he crosses these red lines.

The question is whether attempts to limit AWK’s power will succeed — and even if they do succeed, whether that will be enough to convince most people in Afghanistan, and indeed in the world, that U.S. forces are making real political progress in the south. Whatever the underlying facts, AWK has become a symbol of the corruption and brutality that too often characterize the government in Afghanistan. The very venality of government officials has been the biggest recruiting tool of the Taliban. It will be very hard for U.S. forces to convince anyone that conditions have truly improved in Kandahar — where a major military offensive is planned for the near future — if AWK remains in power. In fact, such an outcome may very well look to the average Afghan as an indication that U.S. forces are intent on bolstering the power of a corrupt clique associated with the Karzai brothers.

There is little doubt that U.S. and other NATO forces can win a military victory in Kandahar. But do they have a political strategy to match their military might? I am dubious. At the very least a lot more groundwork needs to be laid in the realm of strategic communications to convince the world that the coalition can win a meaningful victory in Kandahar without removing AWK from power.

Read Less

RE: Spokesman for Evil

The Leveretts are on quite a roll — blogs, interviews, speeches all spinning the mullahs’ rhetoric. But they’ve also developed a nasty habit of talking about covert operations. We saw a hint of that in their embarrassing interview with Michael Crowley. Now comes this in their latest straight-from-the-mullahs’-PR-office blog:

Iranian officials are not the only sources claiming that U.S. intelligence is linked to groups carrying out terrorist operations inside the Islamic Republic. Some Western media reports—citing former CIA case officers—say that there are links between Jundallah and U.S. intelligence; for example, see this widely noted story published by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker in July 2008. Some of these reports say that Jundallah is one of a number of ethnic separatist groups (including Arab, Azeri, Baluch, and Kurdish groups) receiving covert support from the United States, as part of a covert campaign authorized during the George W. Bush Administration to press Tehran over the nuclear issue and destabilize the Islamic Republic.  For a recent discussion of the issue by a retired CIA officer, see here. As we ourselves have written, there is considerable evidence that President Obama inherited from his predecessor a number of overt programs for “democracy promotion” in Iran, as well as covert initiatives directed against Iranian interests.

As we have noted, Obama has done nothing to scale back or stop these programs—a posture that has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. We understand that, last year, the Obama Administration reviewed whether Jundallah should be designated a foreign terrorist organization, but decided not to do so. Why was that? And, even though the Muhahedin-e Khalq (MEK) retains its designation as a foreign terrorist organization, the Obama Administration continues to push the Iraqi government not to consider longstanding a longstanding Iranian request that MEK cadres in Iraq—which were granted special protective status by the George W. Bush Administration—be deported to Iran. Why is the Obama Administration trying to protect members of a U.S. government-designated terrorist group?

It’s one thing to cite other press reports, but what in the world are they doing speaking from their own knowledge of top secret operations? Really, it’s bad enough to shamelessly shill for the butchers of Tehran but do they also have to blab information they have no legal or ethical standing to discuss publicly? They then do a final bit of water-carrying, assuring us that it wasn’t the Iranians who reneged on the Vienna dealmaking:

It has become conventional wisdom in Western commentary that Iran “reneged” from its commitment to a “swap” arrangement for refueling the TRR and “rejected” the generous ElBaradei proposal because of internal political conflicts that have left the leadership too divided to take clear decisions about important foreign policy matters. We have challenged this conventional wisdom, pointing out that, since the Vienna meeting in October, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has consistently stressed Iran’s “positive view regarding the essence and nature of the [ElBaradei] proposal”, but wanted to negotiate specific details of the “swap”, regarding timing—in particular, when Iranian LEU would need to be turned over to the IAEA and when new fuel for the TRR would be delivered, where Iranian LEU would be held pending delivery of new fuel for the TRR, and how much LEU Iran would need to swap for a given amount of finished fuel.  More strategically, we have argued that Iran’s reaction to the ElBaradei proposal was inevitably conditioned by the ongoing insistence of the United States and its British and French partners on “zero enrichment” as the only acceptable long-term outcome from nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

A fine week indeed for the mullahs’ PR operation.

The Leveretts are on quite a roll — blogs, interviews, speeches all spinning the mullahs’ rhetoric. But they’ve also developed a nasty habit of talking about covert operations. We saw a hint of that in their embarrassing interview with Michael Crowley. Now comes this in their latest straight-from-the-mullahs’-PR-office blog:

Iranian officials are not the only sources claiming that U.S. intelligence is linked to groups carrying out terrorist operations inside the Islamic Republic. Some Western media reports—citing former CIA case officers—say that there are links between Jundallah and U.S. intelligence; for example, see this widely noted story published by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker in July 2008. Some of these reports say that Jundallah is one of a number of ethnic separatist groups (including Arab, Azeri, Baluch, and Kurdish groups) receiving covert support from the United States, as part of a covert campaign authorized during the George W. Bush Administration to press Tehran over the nuclear issue and destabilize the Islamic Republic.  For a recent discussion of the issue by a retired CIA officer, see here. As we ourselves have written, there is considerable evidence that President Obama inherited from his predecessor a number of overt programs for “democracy promotion” in Iran, as well as covert initiatives directed against Iranian interests.

As we have noted, Obama has done nothing to scale back or stop these programs—a posture that has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. We understand that, last year, the Obama Administration reviewed whether Jundallah should be designated a foreign terrorist organization, but decided not to do so. Why was that? And, even though the Muhahedin-e Khalq (MEK) retains its designation as a foreign terrorist organization, the Obama Administration continues to push the Iraqi government not to consider longstanding a longstanding Iranian request that MEK cadres in Iraq—which were granted special protective status by the George W. Bush Administration—be deported to Iran. Why is the Obama Administration trying to protect members of a U.S. government-designated terrorist group?

It’s one thing to cite other press reports, but what in the world are they doing speaking from their own knowledge of top secret operations? Really, it’s bad enough to shamelessly shill for the butchers of Tehran but do they also have to blab information they have no legal or ethical standing to discuss publicly? They then do a final bit of water-carrying, assuring us that it wasn’t the Iranians who reneged on the Vienna dealmaking:

It has become conventional wisdom in Western commentary that Iran “reneged” from its commitment to a “swap” arrangement for refueling the TRR and “rejected” the generous ElBaradei proposal because of internal political conflicts that have left the leadership too divided to take clear decisions about important foreign policy matters. We have challenged this conventional wisdom, pointing out that, since the Vienna meeting in October, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has consistently stressed Iran’s “positive view regarding the essence and nature of the [ElBaradei] proposal”, but wanted to negotiate specific details of the “swap”, regarding timing—in particular, when Iranian LEU would need to be turned over to the IAEA and when new fuel for the TRR would be delivered, where Iranian LEU would be held pending delivery of new fuel for the TRR, and how much LEU Iran would need to swap for a given amount of finished fuel.  More strategically, we have argued that Iran’s reaction to the ElBaradei proposal was inevitably conditioned by the ongoing insistence of the United States and its British and French partners on “zero enrichment” as the only acceptable long-term outcome from nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

A fine week indeed for the mullahs’ PR operation.

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Ahmed Chalabi, Redux

Ahmed Chalabi (remember him?) is back in the news. He is the power behind the de-Baathification Commission, which is wreaking havoc with Iraqi politics by disqualifying secular candidates for supposed Baathist ties. As General Ray Odierno has said, Chalabi and his protégé, Ali Faisal al-Lami, appear to be acting at the behest of the Iranians:

The two Iraqi politicians “clearly are influenced by Iran,” General Odierno said. “We have direct intelligence that tells us that.” He said the two men had several meetings in Iran, including sessions with an Iranian who is on the United States terrorist watch list.

Real Clear World’s Compass blogger Greg Scoblete has responded with a non sequitur headlined “Paging Douglas Feith”:

Many neoconservatives are demanding that the U.S. throw its full weight behind the Iranians in their pursuit of freedom. On the surface, this is obviously a noble idea, but it’s worth remembering that the very people making confident predictions about the predilections of the Iranian people were duped by an Iranian stooge.

In turn Feith, the former Undersecretary of Defense, has weighed in to deny “that Pentagon officials aimed to favor or ‘anoint’ Chalabi as the leader of Iraq after Saddam” or that they were duped by Chalabi before the war.

I think Feith is right on the narrow technical points (the U.S. did not try to install Chalabi as Iraq’s leader and the U.S. intelligence community did not buy all the intel he was peddling) but wrong on the larger issue. There is no doubt that Chalabi had a significant impact on the Washington debate prior to the invasion of Iraq: he was a leading lobbyist for the view that Saddam could be replaced by a democratic regime with minimal American investment of blood and treasure. Like other exiles (and some American experts), he vastly exaggerated the influence of secular technocrats and vastly underplayed the power of tribal and religious forces. This view was adopted by the Bush administration and helps to account for the major American blunders of 2003-2004, which were essentially based on the premise that Iraqi society could regenerate itself after Saddam’s downfall.

But I also believe Greg Scoblete is wrong: First place, the Green movement in Iran is not a figment of some exile’s imagination. Second, simply because Chalabi is now an Iranian stooge does not mean he was one in 2003. My read is that he is an opportunist, out to grab power for himself, who will make use of whatever allies he finds helpful. Prior to the invasion of Iraq and immediately afterward, Chalabi, no doubt, hoped that his American backers would enthrone him. When this didn’t happen, when in fact the U.S. authorities turned against him, he sought backing in another quarter and struck an unsavory alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr and his sponsors in the Quds Force.

The bottom line is that Chalabi now exercises a pernicious influence in Iraq and the U.S. should work with other Iraqi political factions to minimize his impact and try to roll back his electoral disqualifications. And those of us who ever had a kind word for him (myself included) should eat their words.

Ahmed Chalabi (remember him?) is back in the news. He is the power behind the de-Baathification Commission, which is wreaking havoc with Iraqi politics by disqualifying secular candidates for supposed Baathist ties. As General Ray Odierno has said, Chalabi and his protégé, Ali Faisal al-Lami, appear to be acting at the behest of the Iranians:

The two Iraqi politicians “clearly are influenced by Iran,” General Odierno said. “We have direct intelligence that tells us that.” He said the two men had several meetings in Iran, including sessions with an Iranian who is on the United States terrorist watch list.

Real Clear World’s Compass blogger Greg Scoblete has responded with a non sequitur headlined “Paging Douglas Feith”:

Many neoconservatives are demanding that the U.S. throw its full weight behind the Iranians in their pursuit of freedom. On the surface, this is obviously a noble idea, but it’s worth remembering that the very people making confident predictions about the predilections of the Iranian people were duped by an Iranian stooge.

In turn Feith, the former Undersecretary of Defense, has weighed in to deny “that Pentagon officials aimed to favor or ‘anoint’ Chalabi as the leader of Iraq after Saddam” or that they were duped by Chalabi before the war.

I think Feith is right on the narrow technical points (the U.S. did not try to install Chalabi as Iraq’s leader and the U.S. intelligence community did not buy all the intel he was peddling) but wrong on the larger issue. There is no doubt that Chalabi had a significant impact on the Washington debate prior to the invasion of Iraq: he was a leading lobbyist for the view that Saddam could be replaced by a democratic regime with minimal American investment of blood and treasure. Like other exiles (and some American experts), he vastly exaggerated the influence of secular technocrats and vastly underplayed the power of tribal and religious forces. This view was adopted by the Bush administration and helps to account for the major American blunders of 2003-2004, which were essentially based on the premise that Iraqi society could regenerate itself after Saddam’s downfall.

But I also believe Greg Scoblete is wrong: First place, the Green movement in Iran is not a figment of some exile’s imagination. Second, simply because Chalabi is now an Iranian stooge does not mean he was one in 2003. My read is that he is an opportunist, out to grab power for himself, who will make use of whatever allies he finds helpful. Prior to the invasion of Iraq and immediately afterward, Chalabi, no doubt, hoped that his American backers would enthrone him. When this didn’t happen, when in fact the U.S. authorities turned against him, he sought backing in another quarter and struck an unsavory alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr and his sponsors in the Quds Force.

The bottom line is that Chalabi now exercises a pernicious influence in Iraq and the U.S. should work with other Iraqi political factions to minimize his impact and try to roll back his electoral disqualifications. And those of us who ever had a kind word for him (myself included) should eat their words.

Read Less




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